Tuesday, November 30, 2021

A wearisome caution. . .

It is a symptom of Lutheran angst that we seem intent upon cautioning against excess for just about everything.  From good works to ceremonies in the Divine Service to joy, we cannot experience the fullness of God's gifts and blessings and respond to them without some Lutheran warning us against too much.  It has been the bane of my Lutheran life that every aspect of pastoral life has come with the incessant warning against too much beauty, too much liturgy, too much ceremony, too much devotion, too much joy, too many adiaphora, too many vestments, too much piety, too many good works, too much of any of the good things I thought we were supposed to love and desire and appreciate!

One of the visiting pastors who made his way into our Divine Service last summer complimented the extras while at the same time lamenting that his people would never go for all that and his brother pastors would castigate him for being too Roman or something.  But he yearned for something more than minimalism as a theological, liturgical, and musical motif.  He was not the first nor the last to speak in this way.  How sad of us!  We Lutherans seem to appreciate food and drink well enough.  Why do we think that the best supper in God's House is austere and plain?  It is not like we as a Lutheran Church are in any immanent danger of abandoning truth for style.  The average liturgical parish in the LCMS is still what could be called low church in ceremony and music.  Our golden age of Bach and Brahms and Pachelbel and Walther have been replaced with worship absent of choir or cantor, mostly spoken liturgy, and a common body of hymns we share more with Methodists than with our Lutheran forbearers.  So why must we always warn against excess when a congregation or pastor begins to put forward something other than a minimum in the Divine Service?

Even when we do laud and honor the gift of art and music and our own heritage of artists, artisans, and musicians, we do so with a caveat.  Yes, these are all well and good, mind you, but you don't need them and they are extraneous -- not essential.  It is like the strange way we approach the rite of ordination -- it is, after all, only apostolic custom -- God forbid that apostolic custom should count for much!  This strange preoccupation with simplicity was not essentially Lutheran -- at least the early Lutherans were all in for art and music -- from the Cranachs to Luther the composer himself!  But at some point in time, we must have met a Calvinist who convinced us to be embarrassed by our Lutheran identity and in our shame we repented of good music, good liturgy, and good art.  Can you explain it to me?  Even in the comment threads of this blog, there are also those voices of concern cautioning me against any normative Lutheran tradition when it comes to an appreciation for art, music, vestments, ceremony, and the like.  This caution about art, music, liturgy, and ceremony is about as logical to our Lutheran identity as those who order a diet drink with their extra size fries and triple patty Whopper.  

Before someone from a less is more congregation decides to argue with me, I refuse to listen.  Your caution has been like a pain in my, well, side, for most of my ministry and I am simply tired of hearing your warnings.  The LCMS is in danger of abandoning truth for show about as much as America is in danger of forgetting the pandemic.  It ain't gonna happen anytime soon.  So I am announcing that from now on I will not listen or read or give place to those who voice caution when instrumentalists are added to worship or art is added to the sanctuary or musicians are paid what they are worth or time is spent doing things right or a bow, genuflection, bell, or elevation draws attention to the holy things of God that are supposed to be our joy and delight.  Instead, I caution you against a false humility which is really hubris as you delight in being a Lutheran version of spiritual but not religious -- simple Lutheran Christians who are Amish in liturgy and satisfied with what is plain and unadorned on Sunday morning.  In your faux piety and superiority you look down on congregations and pastors who want and do something more and you thank God you are not like those.  God has not called you to be the conscience of His people -- you have put yourselves into that place.  

And you pastors trying to offer more and do more, God bless you.  God bless your efforts.  God bless the fruits of those labors.  Your works are not in vain.  The day will come when people will awaken to the gifts of God in arts and music and ceremony and then, Deo volente, God's people will not be content to settle for the false dream that less is more.

Gosh, I feel better.  I hope you do as well.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Our Advent King. . .

The Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (C) preached on Sunday, November 28, 2021.

Death clarifies so many things.  In death, the details of a person’s life are laid out to highlight only the things most important – date of birth, date of death, parents, spouse, children, family, place of funeral, and place of burial.  The high cost of obituaries only emphasizes even more the succinctness of what we publish about the dead.

In a month or so the news will tell us the list of all the famous folks who passed away in 2021.  If you are like me, you will be shocked – not only at those who died but at those you thought had died long before.  Famous and anonymous, death is no respecter of persons.  It comes to young and old.  I guess I have reached that point in life where I notice in the obituaries the ages of those who die – especially those younger than I am.

The news of the past year has been filled with death.  Terrorists, natural disasters, pandemic, accident, and the like.  They force us to think of what none of us wants to think.  Death is passed to all people.  Though we might wish not to die, death has passed to all people because of sin.  It is the unnatural natural condition of our humanity.  We have a moment in time when we are born and we have a moment in time when we die.  We cannot wish it away or ignore it.  But neither do we need to surrender to it.

Now, weeks before Christmas and its glow of love, gift-giving, holiday gatherings, special foods, and time with family, Jesus points us to the reason for the season.  He has come to die.  The Palm Sunday entrance of our Lord is not some distraction from His purpose but the very reason for His birth and life.  He has come to die, to take upon Himself the weakness of our flesh, to become like us in every way except sin, and to plant in death the cross of life.  This does not spoil the Christmas message but frames it so what we know what it is we are welcoming, what is the cause of our joy, and what it means that Christ was born of the Virgin in our flesh.

Our Lord rode the donkey into Jerusalem not for the adulation of the crowd but for the sinners, marked with death, who cry out “Hosanna!”  Lord, save us.  Help us.  Rescue us.  We carpet His way not only with palms but with our prayers to be released from the prison of death and the captivity of our sin.  We cry out not to prevent the reason why He has come but to urge Him on – “Ride on, King Jesus!
Ride on to the cross!  Ride on to die!”  Advent tells us right up front what life this baby was born for and what death He must die if you and I are to have any hope of redemption.  Jesus is not ashamed of this.  His whole life and ministry is focused on this future.  And if He is not ashamed or embarrassed that hidden in Christmas is Good Friday, why would we?

Jesus is clear about it.  Death is the enemy and sin is the cause of death.  There is no ignoring it or escaping it.  Death clarifies our lives and leaves us with a stark sense of what is important and what is not.  Isn’t that what the family tries to convey in the obituary?  What was important and, by omission, what is not?  In the same way, death clarifies what Jesus has come to do.  He has come to die the death that was ours and to offer us the life that is His.  To do this, He must break the back of sin, overcome the devil, suffer the taunts of this sinful world, and rise to show forth His victory, accomplished once for all.

We are the sinners for whom Christ has come.  We are the faithful who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, cry out to Him:  “Hosanna!  Lord, save us!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  We would rather ignore death or be satisfied to postpone it a bit but Jesus is not weak or afraid, like we are.  He has come to confront death, to meet it face to face upon the brutal agony of the cross, to lay alone in the cold, dark tomb, and to rise up with the surprise of victory.  Death clarifies everything – even Christmas!

For YOU our Lord has come.  For YOU He has taken on the weakness of our flesh and blood.  For YOU He has entered into this earthly domain of death and doom.  For YOU He has come so that you are not alone in death or on your own to deal with sin.  For YOU He has come and embraced every evil thought, every hateful word, and every shameful act.  For YOU He has come to answer the sinful desires that just want to be set free with the power to silence their old voices and teach you the new desires of holiness and righteousness.  For YOU He has come and carried the inheritance of Adam that we might receive His legacy of life.

He has come willingly and was not compelled against His will.  He has loved YOU more than His own life and in the surrender of His life to our death we learn what true love is.  He is perfectly in tune with the Father’s creative and redemptive will and purpose.  He knows what He is doing and what it will cost Him and for this reason He is born of the Virgin, laid in the manger, and lives the perfect life.
This is not the time to set aside talk of death until after the holidays.  This is not the time to pretend niceties that put a good face on a life lived in the long, dark, shadow of death.  No, my friends.  It is right now, at the start of Advent, making our way to the Manger, that remind ourselves and announce to the world that Christ has come to die.  Ours is not a good times God but a God for the worst that we face, the sin that troubles our souls and the death that kills our bodies.  That is what Advent says from day one.

Christ rides the donkey into Jerusalem not for a photo op but because this is the King He is – the King of life who dies that we might live in His kingdom of life forevermore.  Advent has become too easy.  We have no stomach for waiting and no patience.  We want our presents now and all the good times we dream about.  But the reality is that death is in the way.  If we cannot deal with it, somebody must come to deal with it for us.  That someone is Jesus.  

Silent Night is not the culmination of our song of praise but the warm up to the song of death and resurrection that is the beating heart of the Gospel and the only hope for sinners dead in trespasses and sins.  He who came as a Son of Man to Bethlehem and the manger but lives as Second Adam to undo what the first Adam did and rises up the New Man over whom death has no power and comes to us in Word and Sacrament that we might be born again, called and gathered, fed and nourished for the life that death cannot overcome.  And to this the Church cries out on the First Sunday in Advent and all the way to heaven’s gates:  “Hosanna!  Lord, save us!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!”  Amen.

Atheist chaplains. . .

Oh, the horror and shock of it all!  Harvard appointed an atheist as head chaplain.  I know that there are people wringing their hands in sorrow over it all.  But, frankly, it is old news.  Harvard long ago ceased being an institution that took seriously God's Word.  Sure, there may be a few voices among the many who privately hold to the orthodox Christian faith but to be on the faculty of Harvard or to be a student there is almost by association to stick up the proverbial finger to Christianity and its claims.  The time for outrage has come and gone, folks.  It is time to wake up and smell the roses.

There is a part of me that is happy about this.  After all, the veil is lifted.  We see the secular university (even those with religious heritage) for what it is.  It is not a place where God is welcome or His Word has any real significance.  Instead, the university has adopted the new faith of the co-exist movement with its suggestion of religious truth found everywhere (and therefore nowhere).  This is not a place for us to send our young and curious sons and daughters.  Nevermind the earning potential that comes with an Ivy League degree, if it comes at the cost of the soul what have we gained for our children and grandchildren?  There are alternatives and better educations.  Besides, we live at a time in which the power of an educational pedigree seems less significant on the future outcome of the young adult's life than ever before.  What matters the Harvard diploma to those who hunker down before their screens working at home to line the pockets of Jeff Bezos and his ilk?  No, we ought to be thankful for their honesty and we ought to respect it.

By the way, it is not simply the Ivy League universities who have abandoned their souls to the devils of diversity, wokeness, historical revisionism, sexual freedom, gender identity, and relative truth.  Catholic University of America, Notre Dame, and most all of the Jesuit schools may be slightly behind the pace of the once formidable Protestant schools but not that far behind.  Rome does not know what to make of her once glorious crown jewel schools.  Though they have chapels and religion departments, these seem to have little real influence over the rest of the school and they are, themselves, bordering on the edge of Christian orthodoxy.

In this way, I wonder how long the smaller church colleges and universities can survive with one foot in the world and one foot in the Church.  We in the LCMS are not alone in wringing our hands over those schools once acclaimed as our crown jewels.  We have not the dollars or the students to preserve them in the way that a Hillsdale has insulated itself from government patrimony and secular identity.  Some may survive as legacy schools but the rest will probably be swallowed up for their real estate or auctioned off as the broken dreams of a generation that did not see this day coming.  When the mess is finally resolved, then we just might get back to the real mission.  When we have disposed ourselves of the idea that we can be like Athens and Jerusalem at the same time, then maybe we might realize that the real choice is even worse and do something about it.

Parents might realize that their children's faith is more important that their financial welfare, that being good in this world is being godly, and that the best for their children eternally may mean some real sacrifices in this present life.  Churches might realize that there is a real war going on for the souls of our children and families and that we will lose unless we put up a fight.  Just maybe we will end our fascination with programing the people of God and feed them real food with the Word and Sacraments.  Perhaps we will also realize that you cannot simply preach justification and assume that sanctification will spontaneously result.  For that is part of the problem.  We have not warned our people or our children of the dangers or pressed upon them the urgency and importance of remaining faithful -- all the while producing the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous Light.

Harvard shone some light into the darkness -- it did not enlightened as Christ's light does but revealed enough of the sad reality of our failed religious veneer on secular entities to remind us that they are not of God.  Now, what will we do with this self-revelation?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Waiting. . .

The poet John Milton wrote, "They also serve who only stand and wait."  Waiting is referenced several times in Scriptures.  "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of If you the wicked." Or so says the Psalmist in Psalm 84 of those who wait and watch at the gate for the Lord.  If you look them up, you find that the gatekeepers were Levites stationed at the gates of God's house. Though hardly a glamorous job, it was essential.  Every day they opened the temple gates in the morning and at the end of the day they closed them again for the night. They were not merely ornamental.  They had a purpose.  They stood at their positions to receive the tithes and gifts brought by the Israelites.  They watched not only over the House of God but the all that was brought in.  Its storerooms and treasuries were watched so that they were kept secure for the Lord's purpose.  They also protected the Lord's House from those who did not belong -- the unclean who could not enter the Lord's House.  It was honorable work given to those who were trustworthy but it was long and tedious.  It was not particularly interesting or fulfilling but it was important.  Standing guard at the entrance to God's house, the doorkeeper himself stood as a sign and symbol, a reminder, that entrance into God's presence was not a right but a privilege.  It was nothing to be taken lightly or casually.  Also the gatekeeper or doormen were signs and symbols of all of God's people -- those who wait upon the Lord in the duty and obedience of faith.  The waiting that was their vocation but it was also their curse -- long hours waiting and waiting and waiting.

The whole idea of standing guard was the fruit of sin.  The Garden of Eden had no need of gatekeepers before Adam and Eve chose to rebel and became unwelcome where God had placed them.  So God "drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life" (Genesis 3:24).  But that was not the only word from the Lord.  With His grace and mercy, He had sent them forth with the promise of redemption and into a history of waiting for the day when that promise might be fulfilled.  Eve cried out in labor that God had given her the man but The Man would not be for thousands of years of waiting in faith upon God's kairos.  

Between Eden and the revelation of the Savior, nearness to God also included the acknowledgement of His holiness.  Even mighty Moses had to maintain his distance from the burning bush.  He stood not on the ground of right but the holy ground of privilege, grace, and mercy (Exodus 3:5).  Though God addressed Moses directly, even  Moses dared not see the face of God and live (Exodus 33:20). At Sinai Moses was commanded to mark the mountain and honor its sanctity with the warning that whoever would even touch it would be put to death (Exodus 19:12).  The context of faith is waiting and even with the very promise of God hidden in that waiting, there is threat and consequence that cannot be denied.

In 1 Chronicles 9, we are told of Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, who had been placed in charge of the gatekeepers.  Almost matter of factly it is reported that they guarded the entrance to the dwelling of the Lord.  Quite literally "over the camp of the Lord, guarding the entrance."  In bits and pieces it unfolds until we encounter a family of gatekeepers (and musicians) -- the sons of Korah.  And with this we are back at Psalm 84, called a Psalm of the sons of Korah. So these sons of Korah were the ones who saing, "I'd rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God."  It is perhaps a small point but Hebrew does not exactly have a noun for gatekeeper -- it is a verb.  Sort of "I'd rather be stationed at the threshold in the house of my God."

At the King's Gate of Solomon's Temple the gatekeepers worked in shifts seven days a week.  Down

through the history of exile and return, the gatekeepers continued their service.  They served and waited on behalf of a nation and a world awaiting the Lord.   In hope the gatekeepers stood for they were waiting for the true king of Israel to come to the temple. Psalm 24 refers to this: "Lift up your heads, O you gates! Lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in."  Note that it is precisely this psalm that is fulfilled when the Lord Jesus made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, sitting on a donkey while the crowds spread clothes and palm branches on the road (Matthew 21).  When He had entered the city, Jesus went to the temple, and there He took on the role of gatekeeper, driving out the merchants and the moneychangers.  Filled with zeal for the Lord and the Lord's House, Jesus takes on the duty and fulfills the office of the gatekeeper by cleansing the temple.  But that does not mean there are no more gatekeepers.

Now we are all gatekeepers -- waiting on the Lord.  Not for the revelation of the Savior but for His coming again.  We protect the treasure by proclaiming it.  We guard not a place but a holy purpose and calling as the voice still sounds to prepare the way and the people still gather with palms and hosannas to proclaim the King of God has come.  He has come to take up not only His presence in the Church but in our hearts.  So we acclaim Him the King of Glory, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we announce to the world that He who is the Blessed One has come to seek and save.  We know that this time is not without end, that the day of salvation will come to a close and the day of judgment will begin.  Until then we stand and wait, proclaim and announce, rejoice in what has come and anticipate what is to come.  Happy Advent, gatekeepers!

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. . .


The posture of praise and prayer. . .

For so many years that I cannot even recall when it began, the Church has been concerned about what can be done to make worship more participatory, more accessible to those outside or new to the faith, and more meaningful/fulfilling for those who are present.  We have literally seen the world of liturgy turned upside down as Romans, Lutherans, Anglicans, and a host of others have revised or dramatically altered the familiar worship forms of the past (with mixed success, to be sure).  Yet as all of this has been done by the liturgical scholars, the jurisdictions, the bishops, and the parish priests and pastors of the various churches, we have seen a distinct reduction of and a decline of importance given to the work of preparation by the people in the pews.  All over the place the outward disciplines of confession, fasting, devotion, and prayer are cast aside as voluntary and, well, not all that important to good worship.

Having grown up in the 1950s, I knew a time in which you could not commune without announcing for the Sacrament, attending a Friday evening service of corporate confession, and having some expectation of having fasted prior to receiving the Lord's body and blood.  This was in the LUTHERAN Church.  But it was normal, ordinary, and hardly questioned.  It was presumed that there were things we could and should do to make ready our participation in the Divine Service.  Hearing the Word meant knowing the Word of the Lord and being in that Word more than on Sunday morning.  Communing meant acknowledging our sins, confessing them, and receiving absolution.  In our push to have the Sacrament offered more often, something had to change and, sadly, one of the things that disappeared were the outward preparations I just spoke about.

Furthermore, growing up the hymnals were not in some rack in the pews but brought from home.  Sure, there was a stack in the back for visitors and the forgetful but hardly anyone forgot (and there were not all that many visitors).  In other words, the hymnal was first in the home before it was in the Church.  The hymnal was not simply a book on a table, shelf, or piano but one of the instruments of our devotion, prayer, and praise.  As much as we want that to happen today, the hymnal is largely known and experienced in Church and not seen as a book for the home or the private devotional life of the Lutheran Christian.  That is so sad but its loss is not merely something peripheral but essential.

I wonder if part of the problems of retaining our people have not proceeded from the common presupposition that there is nothing needful or all that beneficial about preparing for the Divine Service.  We often head to worship with about as much preparation as we would stop for an ice cream cone or pick up an impulse item as we wait to check out from the store.  Because these have been so minimized or forgotten, what we meet for, what happens in, and what we receive from the Divine Service has also been affected -- rendered more mundane, ordinary, and routine.  That is a problem.  For everything in life that we deep special, there are accompanying things, rites, preparations, and such that we do in anticipation of the event itself.  Why have we minimized these when it comes to the Divine Service?  Or have we said so often that worship is casual and ordinary that we no longer believe anything happens there that is worth the effort or needs preparation?

Maybe we cannot and should not go back to what I knew as a child growing up.  But that does not mean we should be content with things as they are.  Godly preparation are not what make us worthy but they do contribute to how we receive and how we value what we receive as God's Word is read and preached, we are absolved of our sins, we receive the very Body and Blood of Jesus, and we respond with prayer and praise.  One of the paths to renewal involves this godly preparation which has become so yesterday in a world of today.  But it may be precisely the yesterday we need in order to rejoice over what receive right now.  The posture of praise and prayer is learned and practiced and prepared so that mind, heart, body, and soul may rejoice in the fullness of the gift and the appreciation which comes from faith.

Friday, November 26, 2021

No room for a brotherhood. . .

If you have read this blog for a while, you know that I am not a fan of the online paths to ordination.  While I have made my point about the curriculum, I have not often made my point with respect to the unity and fellowship of the ministerium provided by a common path to ordination.  The fruits of a common path are often never realized until that path is no more.  Such was the case when the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod woke up to the fact that we no longer had a system of preparing pastors but only two seminaries and even those seminaries were not the only options.  We will never go back to a system of high school, junior college, senior college, and seminary.  I know that.  Everyone knows that.  But that does not mean we cannot learn some lessons from what was lost and how important being a part of a brotherhood of pastors remains.

The seminaries are the final line of what remains of a system designed not simply to educate but to inculturate a ministerium.  Moving from a time when families knew families to a time in which a common experience of life together in boarding high schools, colleges, and seminary was transition enough for one era.  In reality, it was not all that much of a transition.  Pedigree remained important in Missouri all the while the brotherhood was shifting from parentage to their common experience and life together for some  twelve years of their lives -- and formative years at that.  Of course, it did not prevent conflict or argument or even dissent from the doctrinal position of Missouri.  We all know that only too well.  However, it remains the distinctive identities of those who left to think of themselves as Missouri (even, perhaps, the best of Missouri!).  

The next stage in the development happened when the system began to fade away.  Long before Concordias closed, the seminaries were welcoming men from outside the system.  It would not take too long before the high cost of church colleges, the decreasing size of the pre-sem presence on those campuses, and the decline of those coming from teacherages or parsonages would impact the brotherhood.  Now those graduates of church schools are hard pressed to justify the cost of their education with a consummate benefit and those who enter from state schools or other non-church universities and colleges have become the norm.  So the requisite Greek, Hebrew, German, and Latin prerequisites went by the wayside and Greek intensives became the rule.  But the impact was not simply educational, it has been sociological.  The brotherhood is cracking.

In swift form, the cracks became great divisions when the Synod set up a two tier ministerium in which one was almost entirely online and the other on campus.  The common experience and life together of even three years of seminary bears little or no resemblance to the online option.  Not only does the online student have a completely different experience from the residential campus student, the online students complete most of their coursework in the relative isolation of their own screens.  So at a time in which the brotherhood is fractured, suspicious, and skeptical, what we share in common is less than at any other time in our history.  There is, it seems, no room for a brotherhood in Missouri.

Recognizing this, parachurch organizations have stepped up to fill the gap.  In a conversation with a pastor who did not seem to be a cheerleader for the kind of things his parachurch group embraced, he admitted that he joined the bandwagon more out of a desperate need for fellowship than for any other reason.  Added to the parachurch groups are conferences that provide a semblance of fellowship along with common interest.  Even the seminaries have a long history of sponsoring these kinds of conferences.  That is all well and good for the individual but it does little to support and encourage the larger sense of brotherhood within the ministerium as a whole.

We find ourselves more divided than ever -- without a common experience leading to ordination, without enough common interests to bind together the whole, and without even a desire to expand the brotherhood, Missouri faces a big struggle that will not go away easily or quickly.  Worse, we have now grown accustomed to the division.  We talk past each other and ignore each other.  What we forget is that we are the ones hurt by this now and we are sowing the seeds of greater hurt for our church body down the road.  My time is heading to a close as a full-time active pastor but my concern remains.  I fear that we are left only to lament what is lost and may be powerless to restore anything of a healthy sense of brotherhood, fellowship, friendship, and collegiality.  I hope I am wrong.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Now Thank We All Our God


1 Now thank we all our God
    With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done,
    In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
    Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love
    And still is ours today.


2 Oh, may this bounteous God
    Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
    And bless├Ęd peace to cheer us
And keep us in His grace
    And guide us when perplexed
And free us from all ills
    In this world and the next!


D 3 All praise and thanks to God
            The Father now be given,

          The Son, and Him who reigns
    With them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God,
    Whom earth and heav’n adore;
For thus it was, is now,
    And shall be evermore.


2 Corinthians 9:11


You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.


On this day when we are bidden as a nation to remember the Lord's goodness and give thanks, we ought to take special pause to consider how important thankfulness and gratitude are to our identity as a people, to the way we view our history (with all its flaws), and to the way we embrace our future.  And thanksgiving will not remain a feeling but will permeate and guide everything we are and do. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Do you want to get more?

Do you want to get more out of Sunday morning?  Do you want to expand and elevate your experience of the Divine Service?  While I hope no one would say these are not important, I understand that there are a host of things working against us as we come together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  So what can a person do to enhance their experience of the Divine Service?

Sing. . .

Yes, sing.  The most basic part of what improves our worship experience is participation and the most obvious participation is to sing.  Though God is the one who is acting, we are not spectators. We are there to receive and to respond.  Liturgy means work on behalf of others.  It is not our work that is center but God's and this He does through the means of grace yet that does not mean we do not respond.  Singing is a gift of God and its primary blessing is in the Divine Service.  Singing is how we engage with the text and singing is how we echo on earth the angels praise to God above.  Don't just stand there, sing.  The voice that God gave you becomes a gift and a blessing when we give it back to Him.

Watch the words. . . 

Words matter.  The words of the liturgy are not by chance but by design.  Pay attention to them.  Listen as you sing or speak them or as they are sung or spoken into your ears.  Worship is not about feelings but about the objective and profound acts of God's mighty deliverance in Christ and the fruits of that redeeming work.  That is the context and content of the liturgy.  Its order and flow and words and actions matter.  They work together.  Follow along and take what was said and sung with you home.

Be patient. . .

One of the hardest things we do in the Divine Service is to slow down the pace of our thoughts and our lives and live according to the Word.  Of course, we have places to go and people to see but here is where we confront those things that do not matter and those things that matter most.  Patience means we are not driving the action or the clock -- it is God working for us through through the means of grace and His fullness of time that lay before us.  We meet Christ not simply in the eating and drinking of the Holy Communion but all the way through.  The voice that absolves, the Word that is read, the Gospel that is preached, the praises bidden and rendered, and the blessing that sends us forth are all Christ for us and among us -- though certainly the climactic event is receiving the Body and the Blood.

Finally, remember. . . 

Too soon we rise, the vessels disappear;    
The feast, though not the love, is past and gone;
The bread and wine remove, but Thou art here;
Nearer than ever; still my shield and sun.
The Divine Service comes to an end but not its grace and blessing in us.  It remains.  The forgiveness.  The life.  The Salvation.  All that we have received from His giving love accompany us.  Remember this when you feel alone, overwhelmed, despair, or sorrow.  And the longing for the Lord's House and presence that we take from the Divine Service is fulfilled again.  And again.  And again, until it is fulfilled eternally on high.  Remember this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A missed opportunity?

It occurred to me that maybe Satan missed an opportunity to tempt Jesus to sin.  He seemed to hit all the possible weaknesses of Jesus except perhaps one.  The devil did not tempt Jesus with sex.  Our world has turned sex into the single defining aspect of our lives.  From its desires and wants to gender itself, we have insisted that sex is more important than anything else and that it is a need.  Why else would we presume that the whim of a prepubescent youth be judged an inalienable right when it comes to hormones to stop the body from entering puberty with the gender assigned by DNA?  Why else would we judge the life of the unborn expendable if it bothers mother?  Sex rules just about everything.  You cannot bring down a powerful governor even if there are allegations that he deliberately contributed to the deaths of patients in nursing homes but if you accuse him of sexual abuse, he has no choice but to resign.  Sex rules.  So why did Satan not offer Jesus sex as a temptation?

Turning sex into a need has certainly contributed to and perhaps even justified some of the abuse of women and children, to the common use of pornography, to the abundance of the sex trade industry, as well as fueling the agenda for politics for a long time.  But it is not a need in the same sense as other things that are essential to our daily lives.  That does not make it bad but its goodness is certainly within parameters.  It is not simply an instinct that must dominate us or control us.  It is a blessing and a gift but, again, within a context.

Jesus knew this and the devil knew that Jesus knew this.  Perhaps that is one distinction between us and Jesus.  I am not sure that we know this.  Sex has become another of our whimsical needs -- the things we want and we justify them by insisting that we have to have them even though we know the issue here is really self-control.  So Satan tempted Jesus with a true need -- a need that could not be denied -- with food to a man who had survived forty days of fasting.  Even then, Jesus does not bite: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  Jesus denies that mere survival is what determines our lives or needs.  Real necessity is always seen in the context of God's design -- His purpose in creating and redeeming us.  So when the Holy Spirit cast our Lord out of the Jordan and into the wilderness to be tempted, our Lord was never going to deny the Spirit to satisfy the flesh.  But that is exactly what we do all the time.

The great temptation of sex is to place the need outside the context of what is moral and good in the sight of God and to define it as need, as extension of our identity, and to justify the desire as if it cannot be denied without sacrificing our very humanity.  Jesus was not as vulnerable to this as we are.  But you already knew this.  The key here is not rules but for the Christian to place everything within the context of that which does define us, the one thing needful, our life with God and in Christ.  Outside of this we are always in danger and the devil knows how to mix up need and want so that we do the thing that pleases us and offends God and assume we have no other choice.  What is true about so many other things in life is also true with sex.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Work, Watch, and Pray. . .

Sermon for Pentecost Last, preached on Sunday, November 21, 2021.

    I am not sure but I suspect that when you take a drivers’ license test, you still have to know the signs – informational signs, regulatory signs, warning signs.  The signs are important.  You cannot make your way on the road and not know how to read the signs.  We are not talking about tea leaves in the cup or life lines on the palm of your hand but obvious signs that do not guess at the hidden but communicate the real.  Jesus says there will be signs.  He expects us to be able to read them.  He does not say the signs will be hidden and special people or code books will be needed to decipher them.  He says that the signs will be as obvious as a tree budding out in spring.  Our call is not to figure it out but to watch & pray.

    It should not be that hard to watch.  The world is not exactly on course for improvement.  We have extreme weather and extreme consequences.  We have the threats of epidemics, pandemics, and economic collapse.  We have climate change people who think man is the enemy of nature and those who think it is our duty to rape and plunder God’s creation.  We have kooks with nukes and those who lead by following. We have men who think they are women and women who think they are men and those who have no need of marriage or children.  We have the legal murder of babies in the womb not wanted and parents who want children but don’t want to raise them.  We are running out of water and oil and aren’t sure if this is good or bad.  We will pay any price to keep a body alive if that is what they want but we will let anybody say when life is not worth living and give them a painless exit plan.  It is not all that hard to see that things are in bad shape.

    You do not need me or anybody else to read the signs.   Our hearts are failing us and I do not mean the ones beating in the chest.  But none of this is a surprise.  Jesus has warned us in advance and told us to watch and pray.  For too long we ignored the signs and bought into the lies that we were in charge of our earthly destinies.  We thought that we could either post-pone Armageddon or find a safe place to weather the storm.  But we are called to do neither.  We are called to watch and pray.  And work.  Watch and pray and work for the kingdom that will endure all of the destruction.  Fixing it or hiding from it are not options.

    Though I am not sure he said it, people think Luther suggested that if he knew the world was ending tomorrow, he would plant a tree today.  Maybe he should have said it if he didn’t.  It is what Jesus says.  Work as if prayer does not matter and pray as if work does not matter and stay alert, watching for His coming.
But that is not what any of us want.  We don’t want to work or pray or watch.  We want to be spared it all.  We want to find a way around the things that Jesus says are surely coming.  Well, we are in good company.  Did not Jesus pray that the cup be taken from Him in the Garden of Gethsemane?  He knew what was coming and had told His disciples as much over and over again.  And then on the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus prays to be spared it.  So there is nothing wrong with praying for God to spare you.  But our hope is not in an easy way out.  We do not hope for an easy exit plan but in a God who will keep us through the pandemonium.

    That does not mean our prayer is of no effect.  Of course, God wants us to pray honestly and not hypocritically.  But even more than that, God wants us to know His will so surely and pray in such confidence that we are good with whatever He wills.  Not my will but thine be done.  As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.  Where we cannot see the path that God is making through the unknown and uncertainty of our future, it is even more important to pray “Thy will be done.”  It is not that we are praying for impossible things but we are praying to the One with whom all things ARE possible.

    So cry out to God.  Lament how bad the world is.  Complain all you want about the mess we have made of things. Let the Lord know what worries you, what keeps you up at night, and what causes you to be afraid.  But do not forget to pray “Thy will be done.”  The Lord loves us.  He has invested the most precious treasure He has to save us.  He gave up His only begotten Son into the womb of the Virgin, into an obedient life in an unjust world, into the suffering that only He could suffer, and into the death that we should have died.  He has done this not for sport but to save you.  You can have confidence in His gracious good will.  So complain to Him about how bad things are and pray to be spared but do not forget to pray “Thy will be done” and to trust in that good and gracious will.

    The purpose of prayer is not to convince a stingy God to let go a little grace.  The purpose of prayer is not to wrangle a better deal from an unsuspecting God. The purpose of prayer is not to trick God into doing what He does not want to do.  No, indeed.  Prayer is an exercise of faith.  Prayer is faith spoken out loud.  Prayer is an act of trust in what we do know of God in the face of what we do not know around us or in our future.  We work.  We watch.  We pray.  We refuse to believe that God is not listening or that He does not or cannot answer us.  Like Job of old, sometimes we raise our fists to heaven but we keep on praying.

    Heaven and earth will pass away.  We can give up carbon energy today and recycle all our waste and be the perfect models of social responsibility and the world will still pass away.  That is the hard truth.  Heaven and earth will pass away.  And there is nothing you can do about it.  I am not saying that you should not care about injustice or taking care of God’s creation.  I am not saying that at all.  But do not be deceived.  The world has an expiration date and that date was written upon everything God made when in Eden Adam and Eve tried a coup against God.  All they won was death and that death has dogged us and all of God’s creation ever since.  Heaven and earth WILL pass away.  That is the hard truth.

    But God’s Word will not pass away.  That is the good truth.  We cannot avoid the tribulations but we do not need to.  Our lives are rooted and planted in Jesus, in the Word of His promise and in the hope that will not disappoint us.  When we pray “Thy will be done” we are asking Jesus to keep His promise and telling Jesus that we believe He will keep His promise.  We are in but not of this world.

    Watch.  Work.  Pray.  But know this.  You do not know the day nor the hour when the Master will come but He is coming.  And He is coming for YOU.  He is coming to finish what He began in you in your baptism.  He is coming to bring to completion the faith you see in your heart and to open your eyes so that you will see it and see Him face to face.  He is coming to build a new heaven and a new earth where sin does not reign, where there is no room for trouble, no room for disappointment, and no room for death.  There is only room for joy.  Stay awake – not because you might miss it but because YOU have something to wait for. 

    Notice the sign.  Jesus does not say watch the fig tree to see when it drops its leaves because winter is coming.  No.  He says watch the fig tree to see when its branches begin to bud and the leaves begin to come out.  It is not winter of discontent that is coming but the springtime of hope and promise; not death but life, not disappointment but joy, not life with an expiration date but life that is eternal.  So watch.  Work.  Pray.  Heaven and earth will pass away but the Word of the Lord in which you have been planted will not pass away.  Thanks be to God!  Amen!!

Under the drumbeat. . .

Under the drumbeat for vaccinations and vaccination passports beats the relentless voice of health, health, health. . . This is not simply a concern for disease and pandemic but the elevation of this life and its preservation to the ultimate good and the goal of our existence.  While we might understand and even sympathize with those outside the Church who have no confidence in life beyond death (other than some vague spiritualized existence), the Church cannot afford to echo this mantra without sacrificing the very Gospel itself.  The disturbing trend of churches encouraging or even requiring vaccination and the vaccine passports for in-person worship rubs against the Gospel itself.

Health is the beating pulse of modern life.  It is impossible to watch commercial TV or read a magazine without encountering ads for drugs designed to make our lives better.  Alas, we are the consumer but do not have access to the medications except by demanding them from our health care providers.  Every week I receive dozens of emails and print pieces from my own health insurer offering me help for my diabetes (which I do not have), weight loss programs (well, I probably could benefit from this), telehealth visits, virtual physical therapy, and the trackers for my exercise, vitality, and healthiness (or lack thereof).   If I spent the time they expect on these programs, I would have little time for much else.  

The high value to which our culture holds good health is obvious in our society.  Of course, exercise is a good thing and so is good diet and taking care of your body.  But as good as these are, are these the supreme goals and purposes of our lives?  Is the supreme goal and purpose of this life a life well-lived or are their values higher than this?  Is virtue still honored in the world around us?  Are sacrifice and service still esteemed more than protecting your own life at all cost?  We seem to be facing a near paralyzing anxiety about getting sick, now with COVID but what might come next, that are out of proportion to real risk, danger, or good living.

When Christian leaders begin to mirror the same preoccupation with health that is outsize of the values and purposes of our Christian vocation in the world and our Christian destiny in the resurrection to everlasting life in the world to come, something is wrong.  There is nothing wrong with vaccines or safety precautions but there is something very wrong when these replace our hope and when we presume these to be the Gospel instead of the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  When our confidence moves from the promises of God and His presence in the worst that this life can offer to a healthy, well-lived life, lived on our terms, then we have sold our souls to the devil and turned the Gospel into another cheerleader for whatever prevails as science, health, or medicine today.

It is certainly a good thing to improve both the quality of our lives and their length.  We ought to praise those whose medical advance have relieved suffering and restored people to a productive life but if we think that such a focus is benign we are foolish.  Just as an abundance of wealth neither satisfies nor gives contentment, neither can an abundance of health fill our souls or make life worth living.  There must be something more -- something that is not directed to or flowing from the moment.  This is the Gospel whose voice is heard ONLY in the Church and, if not here, nowhere.  Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead but not every sick person in the world and not everyone who died.  He did so not to echo the world's focus on the moment but to proclaim Him Lord of life and death AND resurrection.  He used these miracles as signs of the kingdom fulfilled in His death and resurrection that deliver to us a death to sin and a resurrection from death to be His and be with Him forevermore.  

So when Christian leaders jump on the latest news or direction for health and proclaim it as the hope or the law that guards the hope within us, Christ is not served, the purpose of the Church is lost, and we are left with only this life.  And death.  Yes, don't forget death.  For we can postpone it but we cannot overcome it or find our way through it.  Only God can and has done this in Christ.  Sin must be answered.  Death must be overcome.  This is the Gospel -- that Jesus died to end the reign of sin and rose to vanquish our enemy death.

There may never be a COVID free world but I can say with certainty there will never be a world without some threat to our lives and health.  We will probably have to learn to live with COVID in some form or another (the way we have lived with influenza and other viral threats along the way).  We cannot pin people's hopes to a day which may never come.  We cannot simply offer them the recycled words of political, scientific, and medical leaders.  We must give them something to answer every threat because it answers the source of them -- sin -- and their power -- death.  Only then can we as churches begin to fulfill our calling to be Christ in the world.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Too hard. . .

Our three week saunter through John 6 is not without complaint.  There are pastors everywhere who wasted most of what they wanted to say on the first appearance of the Bread of Life discourses on the first week or at least by the end of the second.  They wish the inventors of the three year lectionary had skipped a week or two of John 6.  I will admit to having had some of the same thoughts early on in my experience with year B.  But I got over it.  Not in the least because I came to realize that our Lord was not simply repeating Himself.  He had something to say.  It was hard, so hard, in fact, that Jesus' own disciples complained -- and they had heard and would hear more hard sayings from Jesus.  In other words, our Lord did not back down and lighten up.

The drumbeat for a lighter or easier Jesus has not subsided.  It has only increased.  But the voices calling for such a thing are not only those on the outside looking in.  They may be even more so from the inside of Christianity, from theologians and pastors and people in the pews who believe that doctrine divides, that the appearance of unity is more important than faithfulness, and that reason is a final judge over what is to be believed.  The Christian truth is under assault now more than at any other time and those disputing the facts of the faith, its truthfulness and historicity, and the importance attached to these facts are none other than those who were given the sacred responsibility of serving as guardians of this Gospel.

In response to complaints from our own pews and our own fears that we might been soon judged irrelevant or unnecessary to a good and full life, we have shaved off the hard edges of Scripture's truth and history and softened the Gospel until it has become merely a feeling.  Sentiment is chosen over fact and truth by those outside of Christianity as well as those inside.  What is left is a weak and shallow faith that is unable to reign in our sinful desires or even call them sin.  What is left is merely a meme of a cross instead of a place where real suffering and sacrifice paid the cost of our redemption.  What is left is a Savior who can only help you make your peace with death and celebrate your life -- not bestow upon you a life death cannot overcome.  We in the Church invented spiritual but not religious when we divided truth from content and began to serve as Jesus' interpreters rather than His witnesses.

How foolish we are!  Like the disciples of old who complained to Jesus that His words were too hard, we think that in order for the Gospel to succeed we must distance ourselves from Jesus or edit His words or tone down His voice.  What is so very foolish is that we think we can do this with impunity!  Jesus does not care.  But, of course, He does.  If we read John 6, we might learn that our Lord did not ease up on His disciples or give them an out but confronted them.  Who wants to leave? asked our Lord.  And many of them did.

60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

66After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

The faith will not be strengthened by our surrender to sentiment, by robbing the story of its facts, or by eliminating the need for a Savior by redefining sin.  The Gospel always divides.  From the promise given by Simeon at the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, Jesus was an offense, a stumbling stone, and One who was set for the rise and fall of many whom many would attack.  I get that we in the Church do not like this and we as Pastors want to be loved, liked, and admired, but we gain nothing by giving up the Kingdom in order to preserve our own popularity or relevance.  The world cannot be gained even if we surrender our souls.  It is always a fool's gambit.  What we have forgotten or intentionally yielded in order to be winsome leaves us with nothing at all to proclaim and, at best, a tepid pat on the back for whatever the world believes and however the world lives.  

Either Jesus is King or He is nothing.  But if He is King, as He proclaims Himself, He is the servant King who rescues the lost, redeems the sinner, and raises the dead.  Hard as this is, it is the only real truth and hope for us and for the whole world.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

A focus on time. . .

One of the fruits of the choice made in Eden was to fully embrace time, particularly the present moment, and with it a sense of personal destiny.  Adam and Eve were not simply making a choice about God but about themselves and the moment.  They literally seized the day from the hands of God who created time itself and placed man within it.  They and we, who learned it from them, decided to define time and to make each person the center of that definition.  Time is not simply time after the Fall.  It is my time, my destiny, my future, my life.  

In our distorted view of time, we have invented such things as personal fulfillment, as a life worth living, bucket lists, preferences above truth, feelings to define truth, and true to self as the most important value of all.  We have wrested this thing called time from the hands of God and made it our own.  But we have chosen an illusion of time in which we can make chart our destiny, right our wrongs, judge for ourselves, and make our peace with death.  Nowhere is this more telling than the way we have made life something expendable -- from the child ripped from the womb at the whim of a choice to the aged whom we determine to be living a life no one would want to the suicides we justify because we chose to end a life we no longer judged worth living (and especially because we have charged the physician with making our choice as painless to us as possible).  Couple this with our deification of a painless life either from drugs that dull the hurt to pleasure's pursuit to distract us from any loss and we see what time is like when it is a curse and burden.

Even Christians are not without being tempted by this false and misleading view of time in which we are its center and it the very object of God's creation we were created to exploit.  The reality is, however, that time without God is nothing but a curse.  Without God as its center, it is the worst of all possible burdens to be saddled with and a fruitless endeavor for a predictable end.  It is not simply that God rescues us from the burdens of time gone wrong with the resurrection but that God takes back time from us and gives us His time back.

We have succeeded only in speeding up time and stealing from it any real rest that might give us pause.  Harnessing technology was supposed to set us free but it only sped up the pace of our lives and left us even more a prisoner of the moments death allows us.  Once we seemed defined by our past but now we have cast off all restraint and seem determined to redefine our past according to the passing values and virtues of the present.  So enamored are we with ourselves that we have replaced religion with a woke view of ourselves, our past, and our future.  We have little room for any God except sentiment to divert us from the things we either don't want to deal with or the things we don't think we can.  So much have we distorted the blessing of time with our self-absorbed lives that we fail to see how time can be a blessing, how baptismal vocation rescues us with a purpose and a real future not even death can steal, and how absolution and the Eucharist nurture us along this journey to its consummation in the presence of God who gave us life and redeemed us when we squandered it away.

We fight daily with an urge to live large in this life, to consume instead of produce, to find ease instead of service, and to make death as natural as we have deemed life.  In doing so, we are urged along by St. Paul to walk worthy not of this life but of the God who rescued us from sin and delivered to us a life beyond imagination with Him.  We pursue this life not on our own or for ourselves but as a people set apart for the good works that shine Christ's light into our darkness and find our purpose not in us but in the Lord who made us for Himself.  This is what sanctification does -- it make us holy, of course, but it also makes holy again the day.  This day is not ours to do with as we please but the day of salvation with Christ as its center and purpose and goal.  Sanctification is the restoration of time by restoring us to our place before God and within His gift of time so that we might live for Him who died for us.  He died for us that those who live should not live for themselves but for Him.  That is how time is given back to us and we to it.

Stewardship is the living out of this sanctification -- the acknowledgement that everything we have that is good has been given to us by God and is good only when we use it for His purposes.  It begins by seeing those in our care as our great gift and, yes, responsibility.  It continues when we see our neighbor as a gift and, yes, responsibility.  In these relationships are framed our earthly existence and purpose but these are not simply ends.  They are means -- the means by which we give thanks to God for His gift and the means by which His gift becomes blessing and, by grace, rewarded by God with the surprise of His notice even though we acknowledge our efforts are paltry and flawed.  Stewardship is our use of time first of all -- gift, blessing, and vocation.  Everything else in our stewardship pales in comparison to time and flows from the right ordering of our days.

I have found that Christians sometimes justify their view of time through the lens of Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Yet as pleasing as the symmetry of these words is, they are law without God to rescue us from their hopeless end.  They would seem to fit the whole circle of life thing but they do not.  They do not address life we have made our peace with but point us to the life that God has redeemed -- the life lived in the palm of His hand, the same hand that rescued us from the end we had chosen when we thought we were choosing a grant and glorious version of ourselves that was better than God could ever have planned for us.  

Well, I have rambled enough for one day.  My meandering thoughts were far flung and somewhat disjointed but I hope you find some sense in it. . . 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Ecumenism Today. . .

It was in the Spring 2021 Lutheran Forum, although, as I recall it did not arrive until September.  Even then, when I glanced at the title, it went almost immediately to the bottom of the stack.  It would probably have remained there had not a friend asked me what I thought of it.  So I pulled it out and perused the journal.  The title is very much the tone and style of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau.  In fact, it might be said that the ALPB is one of the few publications that is still interested in the ecumenical movement or its future.  That said, it does not bode well for the cause if Lutheran Forum is one of last voices in pursuit of a cause that could hardly be called on the forefront of church agendas today.  And for good reason.

Most of the churches once in hot pursuit of the ecumenical goal have shifted a bit to pursue the sexual agendas that have consumed so much time, energy, and print -- even among those churches not even remotely interested in adopting such an agenda.  Other things are on the plate.  Those things seem to be going better, at least on the surface, than the ecumenical cause.  In fact, they have gone so swimmingly that those churches that have adopted the GLBTQ++ cause have created the need for more ecumenism.  In other words, they have caused more church bodies to form.  As an example, the ELCA decisions of 2009 split off two new denominations.  They were and are not now alone in this consequence.

But the larger reason for ecumenism to lose steam is its very irrelevance.  An example of this lies in the strange fact that those bodies that have chosen to split off and become independent churches have, by and large, remained in fellowship with the very churches of which by conscience they could not be members.  How odd!  But fellowship and the ecumenical endeavor often seems to make for an odd marriage.  The ELCA has established fellowship with churches that refuse to acknowledge the presence of Christ in the Sacrament that comes anywhere close to the wording that the Scriptures say and often contradict the Lutheran Confessions.  This is the conundrum of a real presence which does not define in any significant way the presence or what real actually means.  Indeed, when you are in fellowship with Methodists as comfortably as with other Lutherans, what does the ecumenical movement have to do to build on this success?

It appears that few really believe anymore in the idea of one structure or jurisdiction or headquarters but that was not the big cause anyhow.  The pursuit of ecumenism is really about relative truth broad enough to satisfy every diversity of expression and confession.  After all, using the ELCA as an example, it seems to be perfectly comfortable having non-Lutherans teach the Lutheran Confessions, Biblical, and Systematic theology to its seminarians.  In other words, the ecumenical goal has already been reached by the ELCA.  Why then would there need to be more?  Diversity is the name of the game except, of course, where sexual attraction and gender definition are concerned.  There, it seems, there can be no room for compromise.  But the truthfulness of the Scriptures and the real presence of Christ have plenty of room for compromise and diversity of expression.

The only room left for ecumenism is to goad and prod those churches, like the LCMS, that have refused to compromise on doctrine and practice.  In the end, this has come to mean that Lutherans are further apart from other Lutherans than some Lutherans are from everyone else.  If that is ecumenism, who wants it?  If the best we can do is to ignore differences or agree to disagree or make agreements with enough latitude for everyone to read in what they want, what good does that do?  Is it not better to have principled disagreements taking the Scriptures seriously and viewing our Confessions with integrity than to paper over differences by treating them casually?  Does not true ecumenism mean facing what divides us and all sides trying to be as faithful to Scripture and the catholic tradition as possible?  Alas, it seems that nobody is all that interested in real ecumenism anymore.  Those who talk about it believe in unity over integrity of confession and those who don't talk about it do not seem to care.  Unless I missed something, there was nothing about such things in the Lutheran Forum article.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

No sign of fruit coming. . .

At one point, when I got it in me to garden -- a foolish whim -- I was thoroughly impressed by the grand tomato plants that were the object of my attention.  Manure from a farm and countless hours of watering had produced a large and leafy plant that was the envy of all the other plants in the garden.  Except that there were no blooms.  No flowers from which the fruit could come.  Only green leaves and a lot of them.  On the other hand, my broccoli looked pitiful as a plant but bloomed like crazy an produced crop after crop of luscious fruit right up until the front claimed it.  I learned a lesson.  It is not the abundance of green leaves and the size of the plant that determines how much fruit it bears.  I should have listened to Jesus.

Alas it is the season of parables and lessons taught by our Lord about the last things.  Though not appointed for the lectionary, Mark 11:12-14 might well fit one of those warning words from Jesus.

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
If you are like me, you might have wondered about this story and felt a tinge of sympathy for the fig tree. It was not its time, after all.  Jesus seems rather harsh and judgmental about a tree which could hardly be expected to show forth its fruit when the season of fruit bearing had not yet arrived.  But this is one of those stories you have to look at a little deeper.  It turns out that fig trees have a sort of pre-fruit fruit -- an edible fruit that appears before the figs themselves.  A breba (commonly breva in Spanish, and often taqsh) is a fig that develops on a common fig tree in the spring on the previous year's shoot -- before the actual full fig that is the fruit of the new growth.  It is like the bloom on my tomato plant -- without this precursor fruit, there will not be any figs to harvest.

A tree with many new leaves but no taqsh will become a nice looking but barren tree later in the year when figs are in season.  You could eat this pre-fruit and the poor often did and this may be what Jesus intended to eat.  But the tree was empty of any fruit and had only leaves and because there was no taqsh to eat there would be no figs at the time ripe figs were in season.  The pre-fruit is a sign, like the blossom, of what is to come and a sign of what will not come if it is missing.  Jesus read the signs.  He saw that the tree was without sign of fruit and so when the season arrived it would bear nothing.  Only leaves and an outward show of life but without fruit, no purpose.  He was, of course, not speaking simply of figs but of faith which has all the leaves but no sign of fruit -- like the folks He was condemning in Israel and many Christians today.  A religion reduced to offering predictable forgiveness to a people comfortable in sin is no religion at all.

I was put onto this, from several sources, and to the work of W. M. Christie, a Church of Scotland clergyman who served in Palestine.  Many years ago, he posited that the time of year at which this probably occurred (if, as is he suggested, Jesus was crucified on April 6th, a.d. 30) the incident then this was the first days of April.   According to Christie, that would fit well with the end of March when this pre-fruit of the fig would begin to appear.  About the size of a green almond, they were often eaten, especially by peasant folk.  They eventually drop off and the real fig appears.  These fruits are the first signs that the fully formed fig will appear in 5-6 weeks. Their appearance was a sign of what was to come and, without them, a sign of what was not to come.  When Mark says the time for figs had not yet come, Mark was referring to the fully formed fig.  But Mark's works fit nicely with respect to the leaving out of the tree and an absence of taqsh -- telling Jesus no figs were to be forthcoming.  Jesus found the tree, and faith that looks like this kind of tree, hopeless and without fruit unworthy of anything but judgment.

In any case, the warning Jesus speaks is made clear a few verses later:

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

Jesus is calling us to faith -- to a fruitful faith displayed not with lavish foliage but with a merciful heart that forgives as we have been forgiven, gives as we have been given to, and prays urgently expecting God's wisdom to give the right answer at the right time.  Have faith!  That is the lesson.  Sure it is a warning but the warning is not to those with faith but to those whose faith is empty -- a fine stand of leaves but without blossom or bud on which fruit will be born.  Surely this is a profound message for today when even Christians are tempted to judge more by feelings than the Word of God, when we run from cross bearing to the illusion of happiness, and when we seek God to bless our way more than for us to walk in His.  Jesus promises that life will not be easy.  We will face persecution and threat from outside, doubt and fear inside, but His call is to faith and faithfulness no matter what.  He reminds us over and over again that the fine foliage of an outward Christian life will find its reward here and now but not before God.  Faith endures and this faith may be scarred and wounded but it is still faith -- no dimly burning wick or bruised reed will He cast away.  So take heart, my friends.  He who endures to the end shall be saved.  But even here God has provided means for us to endure.

The buds of faith that bear fruit are fed and nourished by and displayed in the means of grace and our attention to them -- hearing the Word of God preached and taught with glad and willing hearts, rejoicing in the gift of baptismal new life and walking in the way of Christ, confessing our sin and being restored by the voice of absolution, eating and drinking the food of the Kingdom in the body and blood of Christ.  Without these, it is hard for good fruit to be born -- much less come to fruit.  Sure, in impossible times we can survive feeding on Christ in our hearts without the benefit and blessing of God's House and the things of God's House but not long.  God means for us to grow and bear fruit that will last -- last to the day of judgment when the Christian hears the welcome and well-done of the Father as Jesus presents us on high.